Is Marriage About Civil Rights or Is It About What Is Best For Children?

The erosion of a coherent and shared vision for marriage in America continues. Nationally, the decision of the President to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), constitutes a shift in the position of the Federal Government. Locally in the Washington DC area, (already enduring a City-Council imposed redefinition of marriage), the Maryland legislature is debating a proposal to redefine marriage to include Gay Unions.

We have previously discussed on this blog the long road that has gotten us here. (eg: HERE).   The fact is, the traditional and biblical understanding of marriage has been eroding for over fifty years in this nation. Most people, even Church going Christians, do not have a vigorous understanding of Marriage that is either biblical or rooted in Natural Law.

Because of this, advocates of so-called “gay marriage” have been able to successfully shift the conversation to a question of civil rights and bigotry. The President, in his order to the Justice Department to stand down from defending DOMA, stated that he thinks DOMA is an impermissible form of sexual orientation discrimination. Never mind that such a judgment is not his to make, that he is neither the judicial nor the legislative branch of Government.  The point here is that the concept of “gay marriage” as a civil right has won the day with the President, and frankly with many Americans. In so acting the President more than suggests that supporters of traditional marriage are guilty of supporting unjust discrimination. To this the US Conference of Catholic Bishops Conference has this to say:

This decision represents an abdication of the responsibility of the Executive Branch to carry out its constitutional obligation to ensure that the laws of the United States are faithfully executed.  It is also a grave affront to the millions of Americans who both reject unjust discrimination and affirm the unique and inestimable value of marriage as between one man and one woman.  Support for actual marriage is not bigotry, but instead an eminently reasonable, common judgment affirming the foundational institution of civil society.  Any suggestion by the government that such a judgment represents “discrimination” is a serious threat to the religious liberty of marriage supporters nationwide. [1] .

The statement is well worded and forceful. And yet it remains true that It is clearly an uphill battle for the Church to reassert a vision for traditional marriage. Seeing the issue as a matter of civil rights, and not about the nature and purpose of marriage, is increasingly common in the public discussion and explains why even many Church-going Catholics support so called “gay marriage.”

Finding our way back – Part of the essential work we must do in re-establishing  a coherent vision for marriage rooted in tradition, Natural Law and, for believers, Scripture, is to restore a proper reference point  so that all the pieces of the discussion make sense.

And what is this proper reference point? Simply this, Marriage is about children and what is best for them. It is not essentially about civil rights. It is not merely about two adults being happy and fulfilled. It is essentially about children and what is best for them. If we use this as our starting point a lot of other things begin to fall in place:

1. That Marriage should be a stable and lasting union – Children require 18-20 years to come to maturity. A stable environment is obviously best for them. The modern scenario, in too many cases, is that children are shifted back and forth between parents who are often divorced or never married in the first place. One weekend here, another weekend there, summers here, summers there. The instability is terrible for children. Parents should seek, above all to resolve their differences and stay married.

Stable homes, even though imperfect (and all homes ARE imperfect) are an important way that children learn virtues and values such as trust, commitment, forgiveness, toleration, generosity, conflict resolution, love, loyalty, and integrity.  A stable home, even if imperfect, inculcates in children a sense of true marriage and family, knits together important family ties at a multigenerational level,  and sets them up to also form stronger families themselves. They also learn proper dynamics between men and women, how to treat and regard a member of the opposite sex, and so forth

Those who simply dismiss the traditional and stable family as no better or worse than other arrangements are ignoring what long experience has taught the human family in this regard. Scripture affirms the value of a stable family when it speaks of a husband clinging to his wife (Gen 2:24  Matt 19:1ff  inter alia) and when Jesus forbids divorce (Matt 5, Matt 19, Mark 10 inter al). Marriage is about what is best for children. And stability, as a general rule, is what is best.

2. That Marriage should be heterosexual – Though, obviously heterosexuality is necessary for the actual procreation of children, this is not the main point here, for many Gays argue that they can adopt. The central point here is not the mere pro-creation of children, but what is best in raising them.

And the fact is, that children are best raised with a father and mother present. In terms of simple human formation, children are best raised with male and female influence. There are things that a father has to say and model for his children that only a father can properly and best do. There are things that a mother has to say and model for her children that only a mother can properly and best do. This is what nature herself provides in linking pro-creation, necessarily, to a father and a mother. Two fathers, or two mothers, or just one parent present, are not ideal situations for children. As a general rule it will always be best for children to be raised in a traditional family setting.

There are times were death or illnesses intervene. There are exceptional circumstances where a certain father or mother is unfit. But the general and common rule is that a traditional heterosexual marriage is ideal for children. Again, it is what nature herself has set forth, and for believers, it is also what God has set forth. In the rarer cases where a parent is missing from the family, it is essential for the remaining parent to provide opportunities for children to interact in a proper way with mentors of the missing sex. This can be accomplished most frequently with aunts, uncles, grandparents and the like.

But the bottom line is that traditional heterosexual marriage is optimal for children and their human formation. All other arrangements are less than optimal and to the degree possible children should always be raised in the optimal setting that Nature, and Nature’s God has set forth.

In adoption situations, married heterosexual couples should enjoy priority over single parent settings and homosexual couples. This is what is best for children. In terms of infant adoptions there is a usually a waiting list and these infants are thus best placed in the homes of qualified, married, heterosexual couples. This is not bigotry. This is what is best for children. As for older children, there is the sad reality that it is harder to find couples to adopt. But here too, married heterosexual couples should generally speaking be favored by that fact.

Again, the question is, what is best for the child. Not, how and whether certain adults may be offended by perceived bigotry, or whether the approach is politically correct or not. In the end we want what is best for children.

3. That traditional, heterosexual marriage should enjoy the favor of law and recognition  – One of the great battle lines in the marriage debate has been that married couples do enjoy certain favors under law such as tax credits, inheritance scenarios, hospital visitation etc. Most fair minded people see room for some give on these sorts of things. On a case by case basis, it may make some sense to allow, under civil law, a greater capacity for Americans to legally enact a wider variety of arrangements for power of attorney, inheritance, tax issues and the like.

However, if what is best for children remains our starting point, then it also follows that traditional, heterosexual marriage should enjoy some legitimate favors. Strengthening traditional marriage is a worthwhile goal for public policy. It may be of value that some tax breaks that make it easier to form and keep traditional families. Granted, the degree of such proactive policies is debatable. Even among supporters of traditional marriage there are many who have a more libertarian preference when it comes to ANY government involvement.

But in the end, whether it is through tax breaks, or other laws, or simply through special recognition, a strong support and advocacy of traditional marriage is proper and good. For, whatever strengthens the traditional family is good for children. Whatever we can do as a society to uphold traditional marriage, insist on fidelity, limit divorce and give special recognition and honor to these families is good for children.

And this also is why simply calling other unions “marriage” is problematic. To use the same term “marriage” for traditional marriages and also for gay unions implies an equality and identical reality which is not true. Gay unions are not on the same footing with traditional marriage since they are not what is best for children. Traditional marriage is what is best for children and it should enjoy an elevated and special status on account of this. Using the same word for the two blurs all this and traditional marriage loses the favor it should have and the recognition is it should receive.

Enough said for now. But note again the fundamental point: Marriage is about children and what is best for them. When children and what is best for them is our starting point, traditional marriage is clearly a best and proper. This starting point not only challenges advocates of “gay marriage” but also challenges advocates of traditional (actual) marriage. For, it sometimes happens that those in traditional marriage do not always have what is best for children in mind either. Too often couples do not work at their marriage and overcome difficulties. Too quickly many rush to divorces courts. What is best for children too often takes a back seat throughout our culture.

15 Replies to “Is Marriage About Civil Rights or Is It About What Is Best For Children?”

  1. Sorry, Monsignor, but I’m not sure this is the strongest argument. While it is true that marriage might include children, it cannot be what marriage is about because not all marriages do or can have them. If marriage was “about children,” then in those marriages where children are impossible in any event, such as between a couple of 60-year-olds, then that would eliminate the child-based argument against same-sex unions. Whether it was 60 years olds of opposite sexes or the same sex, children are not possible in either case, so there would be no argument against “gay marriage” for the elderly.

    Moreover, to say that marriage is about children is to suggest that, even in those cases where the couple are young enough, it is not a “real” or complete marriage unless and until they have children. If one were infertile, then that would mean that they would never have a “real” marriage. And many of the big couples of the Bible, e.g. Abraham-Sarah, Zechariah-Elizabeth, would then be living together for years and years without being “truly” married. Now, there are indications that that was the cultural belief thousands of years ago, but, of course, to say that would be profoundly wrong.

    A better argument for defending marriage is the nature of marriage, that is, that “marriage is about love and what is best for love,” one of the fruits of authentic love being children, but going beyond them, and one of the conditions for authentic love being truth, especially the truth of the human person and relations between persons. And that truth is that, as revealed in our very bodies, male and female, marriage intrinsically involves only one man and one woman, and whatever you might call a union between persons of the same sex, it is not and cannot be “marriage,” whatever physical acts they might engage in together in the bedroom are not and cannot be, by their nature, acts of authentic love.

    We can sympathize with those who sincerely but erroneously believe that this is love, who do not understand the truths involved here, and who feel wounded by those who insist on adhering to these truths, but it is the truth.

    1. My take on what you have done is that you drop a word in your mind regarding my argument. I say that marriage is about what is BEST for children. Whereas I think you hear me merely to say Marriage is about children. The fundamental structure and design for marriage (that it should be stable and heterosexual) emerges from this fact, that these qualities best supply for what children most need. That there are other qualities of marriage we might explore is interesting but they do not fundamentally disclose the reason for marriage’s basic structure. That some couples mysteriously do not have children or are too old is an exception that does not over-ride the fundamental reason for marriage’s structure which set set forth for the usual circumstances wherein God, upon setting forth marriage “be fruitful and multiply.”

      If marriage is about love and what is best for love we are into some pretty murky waters if you ask me. I am not entirely prepared to say that gay couples don’t really love eachother or that their love is not authentic. Their expression of that love in a sexual way is sinful and misdirected, as scripture says. But I am just not really prepared to say there is no authentic love involved in their relationship overall. I also say this because there are various forms of love (eg. agape, storge, eros, philos and so forth). So, as I say, I think the argument from love can get pretty murky if that’s what you are proposing, especially insofar as love is understood in different ways even in the Christian tradition.

      1. I agree that making it about “love” makes the waters murky. What is love ? And do we want the state getting involved in that question ? I don’t. Of course gay couples really love each other. That’s not the point.

        Putting the key as “what’s best for children” is an excellent idea. It gives the subject a focus that can be observed, defined and studied. If children aren’t involved, only adults, there’s no real need to control, guide, limit or even define marriage. Adults can take care of themselves and make of their relationships what they will. Focus on the kids.

        1. Bender,

          Just because all marriage are not successful having children does not mean their primary purpose does not still include procreation. Merely thinking you cant and what is possible with God are two different things. Look at Sarah and Elizabeth whom you pointed out. They hoped for children. They were thought barren from trying and failing. Intention matters. That is why contraception is evil. That is why homosexuality is a contraceptive act. Our Father slew Onan for letting his seed spill to the ground, because he had no intention to procreate.

          There should always be hope and faith for procreation, despite what we *think* is possible. Marriage is about a covenant, about unity, and about giving life…..not about the feelings of love. It was not called out for that purpose. We are already called to love everyone. Marital love is not more exalted than what my love for a brother is supposed to be. For example, my inlaws had an arranged marriage, where they were at first strangers. Romantic love is a western idea foreign to the sacrament because it was never about who you felt you could love best.

          Also, Jesus taught us that there is no marriage in heaven which would be strange if it was about an exalted love. There is no marriage, because there is no generation in heaven.

  2. Hey Msgr.,
    Love the blog- keep it up. At a panel discussion recently attended, it was interesting to see how both sides of the issued framed their arguments. I thought the most compelling was that marriage is an emotional AND physical union that has the consequence of manifesting that union with the creation of a child. A new way of looking at the one flesh idea 🙂 What better way to argue for physical union than the result of one child from two DNA parents?
    Not only that, but since the ideal family is one that has the original mother and father, plus children, homosexual families resemble broken families right from the start through adoption, IVF, etc. Therefore, it would be unfair to expect homosexual couples to strive for an ideal they are inherently unable to achieve.

    1. Yes, thanks, you have developed the Natural Law aspects here. There is clearly an ideal in the way that nature itself sets forth things. One of the problems with the modern age is the rejection of natural law. In effect many people have concluded that our bodies, and nature have nothing to say to us. But of course they do and we do well to listen and learn from the “is-ness” of things.

  3. @Msgr Pope. I agree with you but isn’t there also a foundational thinking that marriage is an image of Christ and the Church. This argument will not appeal to all but it can answer Bender’s argument that marriage has it’s foundation in love. I would say that even the Church is “heterosexual” if she is not you put Christ in a homosexual relationship. (I hope this make sense). I believe Msgr your arguement is to appeal to Natural Law which is correct. I also think that marriage also serves as an example of Christ’s Church (female) in union with the Father (male) (male and female).

    Lastly, on a personal level, I am always very troubled that unmarried woman choose to adopt children (especially in the African-American Community). I have a dear friend who is the Director, of Social Services in Atlanta, GA and she is constantly telling me how she does not endorse single parent adoptions. I won’t repeat your arguments but you are right. We have lost all sense of what is best for our Children.

    Keep up the good work. God bless you.

    1. Your argument is OK within Christian circles but I am here trying to address the issue more on a natural law basis. I DO quote scripture but only to show that the argument I am advancing also has echoes in Scripture. So, I don’t disagree with you, but this is not an argument that will engage the non believers or non christians.

      As regards single women adopting, I agree there is a problem. However, there is also the fact that some Children might not be adopted at all if we simply forabde it. I guess the best we can expect is that qualified heterosexual married couples get first preference.

  4. I have to agree with the author of the first comment, Msgr., that your stated thesis doesn’t seem terribly strong to me. In fact, respectfully, I believe it is misplaced in emphasis.

    I agree with you that a real marriage is the best place for children. This does not mean, however, that it is best for ALL children; nor does it mean that all situations outside of marriage are bad for all children. The world is grayer than that. Your line of thought seems more appropriate as a defense against having children outside of marriage, or against gays adopting children, rather than a defense of the institution of marriage.

    So what should our argument be? Well, we’re in a terribly difficult position because neither the Catholic Church specifically nor Christian churches generally can point to the glowing success of the institution of marriage. We all know that there are, always have been, and always will be wonderful marriages, truly awful marriages, and everything in between. What do we have to show those intent on broadening the definition of marriage that our preferred option (i) is the best and (ii) should be exclusive? A reliance on Scripture and Sacred Tradition is not enough for those who don’t believe in those sources and for those who believe that civil law should be based on anything but those sources.

    My personal opinion is that the Church, including its laity, should always publicise God’s intent for marriage; but should cease its strident opposition to the redefinition of the civil concept of marriage. We do not live in a uniformly or largely Christian nation. Instead, the Church should highlight the sacramental nature of real marriage, and thus make clear the distinction between civil marriage and a real marriage.

    1. So basically we should unplug from the civil debate? You basically tip your hand when you say: but [the Church] should cease its strident opposition to the redefinition of the civil concept of marriage. Strident? Hmm…. Yes, I think you’ve tipped your hand.

      1. Msgr., my suggestion is that we continue to advocate for real marriage; cease heavy involvment in the redefinition of civil marriage; and instead place our energy into supporting the institution of real marriage.

        1. Jamie, it seems to me the Church’s opposition to the redefinition of the civil concept of marriage IS an effort to support the sacramental institution of marriage. As Msgr. points out, “To use the same term “marriage” for traditional marriages and also for gay unions implies an equality and identical reality which is not true.” Many people (including Catholics) would believe that the Church would deem them equal if she gave up her efforts.

          Should the Church cease its opposition to the redefinition of the civil concepts of ‘personhood’ and ‘life’? We could give up the public fight to stop abortion and just make clear from the pulpit the distinction between civil personhood and real personhood. While abortion may be the greater evil, both situations involve the misleading of souls and the hurting of lives, as well as a further distancing from God in our world.

    2. Jamie said
      Well, we’re in a terribly difficult position because neither the Catholic Church specifically nor Christian churches generally can point to the glowing success of the institution of marriage.

      People not living up to the doctrines handed down by God is not a fault of the doctrines. Success in marriage is difficult just like getting into heaven is difficult, but it does not make the teachings on how to get there any less true. The Church cannot support and promote something that is not true, simply because the rest of the world does not believe it. The Church is the bride of Christ. Like the unitive nature of marriage, Christ and Holy Church are bound in a nuptial. Christ cannot be joined to error and neither can the Church. And lastly, people do NOT have a natural right to adhere to error, but they may at times have a civil right to do so which we should oppose for the sake of society.

  5. Some who indulge in wild sexual thoughts coclude that anything is alright. That is why they argue for recognition of heterosexual activities, gay marriages, divorces, etc. Though faint, there are some who now think that polygamy, polyandry, incest, animal sexual companionship etc could be legalised. For example the first lady of France has publicly expressed that she prefers polygamy. All these mean that some do not want tto abide by any religious teachings. They do not recognise religious leaders or their opinions. Though they are a minority in the society, they come to light and are vociferous because majority who are not in their favour keep silence. It is time the majority with the help of well meaning religious leaders of all religions oppose the destructive trend

  6. I agree with the Monsignor. Marriage is a sacrament between a man and a woman, and one of the sole purposes is not only procreation, but EDUCATION (raising) of children as well. This point gets missed. It’s much more than reproducing. A heterosexual marriage is best for children because they need a balanced relationship between a mother and a father. So-called “gay marriage” cannot fulfill this requirement. Marriage is much more than just a love between two people. I do believe that two people of the same sex can authentically love each other and even have a civil union with legal benefits, BUT, this is not the same as a marriage. “Marriage equality” is just hot-air liberal rhetoric that has no truth to it: there is no ‘equality’. The sexual expression of a gay couple is objectively disordered and is contrary to natural law and the complementarity of the sexes. The homogenital act is objectively immoral, but whether there is personal sin involves certain criteria, and ultimately, God can only judge the hearts of those gay couples committing these acts. Let us pray that our society will finally realize its error in this pressing social issue. Society’s view of freedom and equality as just unrestrained ‘rights’ to self-determination is terribly skewed.

Comments are closed.